National News

President Praises Community Efforts to Free Gross

‍‍2014-12-19 10:09:40 - יז טבת תשעד hnorris

December 17 remarks from President Barack Obama on the release of Alan Gross:

“I wanted to begin with today’s wonderful news. I’m told that in Jewish tradition one of the great mitzvahs is pidyon shvuyim. My Hebrew’s not perfect. But I get points for trying. But it describes the redemption. The freeing of captives. And that’s what we are celebrating today because after being unjustly held in Cuba for more than five years, American Alan Gross is free.

Alan’s dedicated his life to others. To helping people around the world develop their communities and improve their lives. Including Israelis and Palestinians. He’s a man of deep faith who once worked for the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington.

Five years ago he was arrested by Cuban authorities simply for helping ordinary Cubans, including Cuba’s small Jewish community, access information on the Internet. And ever since, those who have loved and cared for Alan never stopped working to bring him home.

Judy, his wife of 44 years and their daughters, including his oldest daughter who walked down the aisle without her dad on her wedding day. His mother, who passed away this year without being able to see her son one last time. His whole family, including his sister-in-law Gwen Suarez who joins us here today (looks her way and waves to acknowledge her presence: Hey Gwen). His rabbi. His friends at his congregation in Maryland, Om Kolel, who kept him in their prayers every Shabbat. Jewish and other faith leaders around the country and around the world, including his holiness Pope Francis. And members of Congress and those of us in the United States government.

And Alan’s fought back. He spoke out from his cell. He went on a hunger strike. With his health deteriorating his family worried that he might not be able to make it out alive but he never gave up and we never gave up. As I explained earlier, after many months of discussion with the Cuban government, Alan was finally released this morning on humanitarian grounds.

I spoke to him on his flight. He said he was willing to interrupt his corned beef sandwich to talk to me (laughter). I told him he had mustard in his mustache. I couldn’t actually see it (more laughs in audience). Needless to say he was thrilled and he landed at Andrews in a plane marked United States of America (applause).

He’s going to be getting the medical attention that he needs. He’s back where he belongs in America with his family, home for Chanukah and I can’t think of a better way to mark this holiday with its message that freedom is possible than with the historic changes that I announced today in our Cuba policy (loud cheers). These are changes that are rooted in America’s commitment to freedom and democracy for all the Cuban people, including its small but proud Jewish community.

Alan’s remarks about the need for these changes was extremely powerful.”

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Rabbis Face Off

‍‍2014-12-18 11:36:53 - יז טבת תשעד ebrown

Rabbi Yehuda Steiner (with some of his students) was appointed to coordinate Chabad’s at George Washington University in 2008. But by 2011, his relationship with Rabbi Levi Shemtov (below) had soured. (

Two well-known D.C. rabbis squared off in civil court this week, resulting in the loser being virtually barred from George Washington University’s campus.

“You can call up the president of the university and wish him Happy New Year,” was all Superior Court Judge Neal E. Kravitz said that Rabbi Yehuda Steiner, affectionately called “Yudi” by students, could do.

At first glance, the case appears to be a garden-variety breach-of-contract claim. But what makes the case so unusual is the nature of the parties themselves.

“American Friends of Lubavitch (Chabad), et al. v. Yehuda Steiner, et al.” pits Rabbi Levi Shemtov, executive vice president and director of American Friends of Lubavitch (Chabad), one of the most recognizable and politically connected Jewish leaders in the country, against Steiner and his wife, Rivky Steiner, the couple Shemtov appointed in 2008 as shluchim, or emissaries, to coordinate Chabad’s presence on George Washington University’s campus.

By 2011, the employment relationship and operation of Chabad GW was strained, according to Shemtov’s complaint, by the Steiners’ wish for “operational independence” from Shemtov. That June, the parties went before a beit din, a Jewish court, whereupon they were ordered to continue working under the terms of a new contract they were to negotiate — and sign — with each other.

In August 2012, the parties did exactly that. Under the terms of the new contract they negotiated, a copy of which was obtained by Washington Jewish Week, the Steiners agreed that Shemtov was the sole religious and executive Chabad-Lubavitch authority in D.C., with control over political, communal and university life, and that they were to report directly to him.

121914_shemtov1The contract mandated that all religious programming at GWU had to be preapproved by Shemtov and that, in exchange for $4,200 in monthly salary, a three-bedroom apartment near campus, health insurance and other benefits, the Steiners were obligated to turn over any proceeds they raised for Chabad GW directly to American Friends of Lubavitch. The Steiners agreed not seek independence from Shemtov, with the contract going so far as to bar them from even broaching the topic for discussion.

In addition, the contract listed five offenses for which the Steiners could be immediately fired, among them failure to keep accounts of their fundraising activities on campus; failure to turn over financial contributions to Shemtov in a reasonable amount of time; opening any organizational bank accounts or new legal entities without Shemtov’s permission; and failure to turn over any other data requested by Shemtov.

In the event of their termination, the Steiners agreed to “peacefully transition” out of their employment within 30 days and cease doing anything that would confuse students or the public about who leads Chabad activities at GWU. A non-compete clause barred them from operating a rival Chabad-Lubavitch campus organization in the District, Maryland or Virginia.

Finally, the parties agreed that in the event that Shemtov wished to fire the Steiners for any one of these enumerated offenses, he could do so only after panel of three other shluchim independently verified such a continuous and intentional breach of the contract. Shemtov could select one such fact finder, the Steiners could select one, and a third would be jointly appointed.

In July of this year, Shemtov said, he determined that the Steiners had failed to provide data requested by him and had failed to turn over two contributions to Chabad GW totaling a little more than $1,000. He moved to fire them. A panel of shluchim from Florida, Toronto and Oslo was empaneled to investigate. On Aug. 6, they issued their findings: The Steiners, they said, had breached the employment agreement by failing to turn over data and funds. The panel concluded that Shemtov was entitled to terminate the Steiners’ employment without further delay or appeal.

The next day, Shemtov fired the Steiners in an email, a copy of which has been obtained by WJW, and requested that they cease all operations at GWU, turn over credit cards and the lease to the Chabad lounge on campus to him. The Steiners, according to Shemtov’s complaint, failed to acknowledge their termination, continued to solicit donations for their activities on campus and advertised themselves on the Internet and through social media as being associated with Chabad GW. As of press time, a Facebook page ( jewishgw) showed dozens of photos of Steiner involved in student activities on the D.C. campus.

On Oct. 7, Shemtov filed suit in D.C. Superior Court, bringing one count of breach of contract against the Steiners. In his prayer for relief, Shemtov sought a judicial declaration that the Steiners violated their employment agreement, an injunction preventing them from continuing their activities on campus and whatever additional relief the court found necessary and appropriate.

What makes this case “very rare,” according to Nathan Lewin, a former deputy assistant attorney general for the U.S. Department of Justice who teaches Supreme Court advocacy at Columbia Law School, is that a Chabad-Lubavitch rabbi chose to seek relief in a civil court as opposed to a beit din.

He has seen — and even litigated — other cases like this, however, including one pending before the Michigan Supreme Court right now involving Shemtov’s own uncle, Rabbi Berel Shemtov. “In that case, it took a number of times going to internal Chabad courts, in which they strongly urged and directed the rabbi who was claiming independence not to do what he is doing, before they got authorization to go to the civil courts. It wasn’t until the fourth or fifth visit [that] they got [permission].”

No longer, said Lewin, “is there a question as to whether a panel of rabbis can be considered an arbitration panel,” as the three appointed shluchim functioned in this case. “If both parties agreed to go to arbitration, including rabbinic arbitration, it is binding like any arbitration panel’s decision,” except, he said, in circumstances where an arbitrator’s decision is challenged on procedural grounds. Case law has made it clear, Lewin said, “that it is not a violation of the Constitution to leave this kind of decision to rabbis.”

In an interview, Shemtov stressed that his decision to take his dispute to the D.C. Superior Court is supported by Jewish law, not an affront to it. Even the judges who sat on the original beit din, he said, have since confirmed in writing that he was entitled to ask the civil courts to enforce his award from the shluchim panel and to fire the Steiners.

Judge Kravitz on Monday agreed, ruling in front of a gallery packed with lawyers, law students and a half-dozen solemn-looking Jewish men clad in dark hats and suits that Shemtov had negotiated in good faith and at arms’ length with the Steiners; that the Steiners were no more than Shemtov’s agents, working for him; that the employment contract was enforceable except for the geographical boundaries contained in the non-complete clause; that Shemtov would suffer immediate and irreparable harm without the issuance of an injunction; and that he was likely to prevail on the merits of his underlying breach-of-contract case if it went to trial.

Noting on the record that “GWU students will miss him [Steiner],” Kravitz said that “ultimately, I believe the students will show resilience and the ability to adjust to a new leader on campus.” Whatever harm the Jewish community at GWU will suffer from the firings of Steiner and his wife, said the judge, is outweighed by “the public’s interest in the enforcement of contracts.”

The judge then ordered the Steiners to comply with Shemtov’s requests and enjoined them from leading further Chabad activities at GWU. Kravitz did prop open one door to the Steiners, however. Kravitz reformed the non-compete clause in the contract to permit the Steiners to move their operations to nearby Georgetown University, a move that “would not threaten the plaintiffs’ legitimate interests.” A wider ban “is unnecessary,” he ruled.

Moments after the judge had ruled against him Monday, Steiner was huddled in a second-floor hallway with his team of lawyers from the D.C. firm of White & Case. He followed up on an earlier written statement to WJW that “my primary interest is simply that I be able to continue my work providing religious instruction and outreach to students in the D.C. area,” by saying that “I know the students want to work with me” and vowing to continue doing so.

Asked for clarification as to whether he meant that he would move his operations to Georgetown University or try to remain at GWU, Steiner said only, “I will leave it up to the lawyers.”

Reached for comment, Shemtov said on Tuesday, “I trust that Rabbi and Mrs. Steiner will comply with the law, honor their contract and peacefully conclude their work at GW, as we mutually agreed they would do in this instance.”

Pressed further for how he would respond if the Steiners do not leave GWU, Shemtov said:  “The reason we are in court is because he wouldn’t comply with the halachic ruling. If he doesn’t comply with this court order, we’ll have to explore what other remedies we have.

“I intend to seek relief and justice,” he continued. “Too high a price has been paid by his refusal to abide by his very clear commitments made in the presence of a beit din, many a handshake agreement and ultimately the power of his signature.”

As for the needs of the students, Shemtov said that they will be “robustly addressed” and that American Friends of Lubavitch intends “to continue growing our programs on this campus. I trust, given our goodwill and reputation, we will surely be able to do that now that this problem seems resolved.”

On campus, word had quickly spread of the dispute and its aftermath.

“When I heard of the legal issues that Rabbi Yudi and Rivky Steiner were facing I was shocked and distraught,” said Jewish GWU student Moshe Pasternak in an email.  “The Steiners have transformed Chabad GW from a fledgling startup to a paradigm of what Chabad on Campus can and should be.

“One of the earliest programs that helped me realize these opportunities was a weekly Pizza and Parsha class taught by Rabbi Yudi,” added the sophomore political science major from New Jersey. Learning “Gemarah and even bits of Halacha and Tanya with Rabbi Yudi have helped strengthen my Jewish identity dramatically. Through learning I felt a connection to the past and the Jewish people as a whole, but I also began to feel a personal connection with Rabbi Yudi. Here was someone who always took the time out of his life to learn with me just because I asked.”

He concluded: “Rabbi Yudi and Rivky have left a permanent mark on [me] and dozens of others, but their work is not finished. Denying them the opportunity to do what they love and help students grow would be a grave mistake that would leave many without a place to turn.”

Another Jewish GWU student, who spoke on condition of anonymity, wasn’t willing to go quite

“I think it will be hard,” said the student.

“If Rabbi Steiner does leave, I think it can’t be in the middle of the year. I hope [it’s] in May, not any time earlier or later. Over the summer … is a perfect time.”

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Alan Gross Comes Home

‍‍2014-12-18 11:36:51 - יז טבת תשעד ebrown
Recently reunited Alan and Judy Gross walk through a Washington, D.C., parking lot Wednesday on their way to a press conference. (KEVIN LAMARQUE/REUTERS/Newscom)

Recently reunited Alan and Judy Gross walk through a Washington, D.C., parking lot Wednesday on their way to a press conference. (KEVIN LAMARQUE/REUTERS/Newscom)

U.S. contractor Alan Gross, who was imprisoned by the Cuban government for five years, returned home to Maryland Wednesday in what was dubbed by many as a Chanukah miracle.

Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), who was informed Tuesday night by Vice President Joe Biden of Gross’ release, was at Joint Base Andrews in Prince George’s County to greet Gross when he landed aboard a State Department plane. He was arrested in 2009 while working for the U.S. Agency for International Development to bring Internet access to Cuba’s small Jewish community.

Cuban authorities accused Gross of trying to instigate a “Cuban Spring” and sentenced the Baltimore-born Jew to 15 years. Gross, 65, of Potomac, is in poor health and reportedly lost more than 100 pounds while incarcerated. In recent weeks, his family warned that he couldn’t last in captivity much longer; he had even told his wife and daughter goodbye.

Cuban officials said he was released on humanitarian grounds, but Gross’ freedom came amidst a recalibration of U.S. policy that is expected to include the swap of three imprisoned Cuban spies for what news reports were calling a high-value American intelligence asset that has been held by Cuba for 20 years.

American Jewish organizations kept Gross’ plight in the public eye for years, but it was the Vatican and Pope Francis who reportedly played key roles in winning Gross’ release. Canada also helped facilitate talks between the U.S. and Cuba since June 2013, according to a CNN report.

Alan Ronkin, Washington, D.C. regional director of the American Jewish Committee, said, “Maybe he’s going to the Chanukah White House party today. We are just so thrilled for the family and thankful to the administration for their work and to the Vatican.”

Confirmed for the White House Chanukah reception Wednesday night was Gwen Zuares, Gross’ sister-in-law, who intended to personally thank President Barack Obama for his efforts in securing his release.

Administration officials called the larger prisoner swap a separate exchange, but Obama told reporters that the United States had to chart a new course with its island neighbor 90 miles south of Florida.

“While I have been prepared to take additional steps for some time, a major obstacle stood in our way — the wrongful imprisonment, in Cuba, of a U.S. citizen and USAID sub-contractor, Alan Gross, for five years,” said Obama. “Over many months, my administration has held discussions with the Cuban government about Alan’s case, and other aspects of our relationship.”

Rabbi Sunny Schnitzer of Bethesda Jewish Congregation, who has visited Cuba several times and went in Nov-ember as part of a three-member Joint Delegation of American Religious Leaders that participated in meetings with high-level Cuban officials with the goal of freeing Gross, said he learned Wednesday that a colleague, Rev. John McCullough of Church World Service, had gone to the federal prison in Kentucky on Monday to visit one of the Cuban prisoners. The prisoner had been moved out of the prison. McCullough contacted the Cuban mission in Washington, which knew nothing about the move.

Gross’ release was immediately cheered by the American Jewish establishment, with statements of support released Wednesday morning by the Orthodox Union, the Baltimore Jewish Council, Jewish Community Council of Greater Washington and the Anti-Defamation League.

“We’re beyond elation. This is the goal that our Jewish community has been seeking to fulfill for five years,” said Ron Halber, executive director of the JCRC, who helped lead efforts by the D.C. Jewish community to free Gross. “We see the value of pidyon shvuyim, the ransoming of captives.”

Criticism of the exchange came swiftly from Sens. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), two of three Cuban-American senators.

Though he called Gross’ release a “profound moment of relief” for the family, Menendez, outgoing chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, harshly criticized the “asymmetrical trade.”

“Trading Mr. Gross for three convicted criminals sets an extremely dangerous precedent,” he said in a statement. “It invites dictatorial and rogue regimes to use Americans serving overseas as bargaining chips.”

Appearing on Fox News, Rubio said, “It’s absurd and it’s part of a long record of coddling dictators and tyrants that this administration has established.”

In contrast, former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, a Democrat who traveled to Cuba several years ago to seek Gross’ release, fully welcomed the exchange, calling it “a good and proportional deal.”

Gross’ homecoming  accompanied a White House announcement of sweeping changes in U.S.-Cuba relations.

“Neither the American, nor Cuban people are well served by a rigid policy that is rooted in events that took place before most of us were born,” said Obama. “Consider that for more than 35 years, we’ve had relations with China, a far larger country also governed by a communist party. Nearly two decades ago, we reestablished relations with Vietnam, where we fought a war that claimed more Americans than any Cold War confrontation.”

Diplomatic ties, which were severed in January 1961, will be reestablished with the opening of an embassy in Havana. Legal travel to Cuba will be expanded, remittance levels to Cuba will be raised and authorized commercial sales and exports from the U.S. will be expanded along with other policy reforms.

Notably, Obama has instructed Secretary of State John Kerry to launch a review of Cuba’s designation as a state sponsor of terrorism; Cuba was added to the list of such countries in 1982.

Roberta Jacobson, Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, will travel to Cuba in January to lead the U.S. delegation in the next round of negotiations.

In a separate release, Kerry said, “I look forward to being the first Secretary of State in 60 years to visit Cuba.”

“Tonight as we kindle the second Chanukah candle,” the Greater Miami Jewish Federation said in a statement, “we know it will burn that much brighter for us in gratitude for the release of Alan Gross and for all those who championed his cause for so long.”

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Statement from Gross on Return Home from Cuba

‍‍2014-12-17 14:48:40 - יז טבת תשעד hnorris
Alan Gross, freed from a Cuban prison earlier in the day, waves after concluding his remarks with his wife, Judy, at a news conference in Washington shortly after arriving in the United States, Dec. 17, 2014. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Alan Gross, freed from a Cuban prison earlier in the day, waves after concluding his remarks with his wife, Judy, at a news conference in Washington shortly after arriving in the United States, Dec. 17, 2014. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Upon returning home from five years of imprisonment in Cuba, Alan Gross had the following to say:

“Chag Sameach.  What a blessing to be a citizen of the United States of America.  Thank you President Obama for everything you have done today.

I want to acknowledge the extraordinary and determined efforts of my wife of forty four and a half years, Judy Gross, and my lawyer and Personal Moses, Scott Gilbert, to restore my freedom.  They have my endless gratitude, love, and respect.  The relentless and often intense efforts by Judy and Scott, the partners, associates, and staff of Gilbert, LLP law firm, Tim Rieser on Capitol Hill, and Jill Zuckman of SKDKnickerbocker have been inconceivable.

Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont has been instrumental in shepherding the arrival of this day.  I want to thank all of the members of Congress from all sides of the aisle, such as Senator Jeff Flake and Reps. Chris Van Hollen and Barbara Lee, who supported, spoke up for, and visited me, subjected themselves to my ranting, and helped me to regain some of my weight.  [Even in Cuba, M&Ms melt in your mouth, not in your hand.]  To all of those who tried to visit me but were unable to, thank you for trying.  I am at your service as soon as I get some new teeth, hoping that they will be strong and sharp enough to make a difference.

To the Washington Jewish Community, Ron Halber in particular and his staff at the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC), all of the executive directors, staff, and volunteers of participating JCRCs, federations, synagogues, schools, and other Jewish, Christian, and Moslem organizations nationwide, God Bless You and thank you.  It was crucial to my survival knowing that I was not forgotten.  Your prayers and actions have been comforting, reassuring, and sustaining.  And to my extended family, especially my sister, Bonnie, my cousins, and friends – Howard, Bruce, our Shabbat group, Nonie and Larry and so many others who exemplify the true meaning of friendship – thank you.

I do understand that there are many others who actively participated in securing my freedom, of whom I am only nominally aware at this juncture.  I promise that I will express a more direct and personal gratitude just as soon as I know who you are.  But ultimately – ultimately – the decision to arrange for and secure my release was made in the Oval Office.  To President Obama and the NSC staff, thank you.  In my last letter to President Obama, I wrote that despite my 5-year tenure in captivity I would not want to trade places with him, and I certainly would not want to trade places on this glorious day.  Five years of isolation notwithstanding, I did not need daily briefings to be cognizant of what are undoubtedly incredible challenges facing our nation and the global community.

I also feel compelled to share with you my utmost respect for and fondness of the people of Cuba.  In no way are they responsible for the ordeal to which my family and I have been subjected.  To me, Cubanos (or at least most Cubanos) are incredibly kind, generous, and talented; it pains me to see them treated so unjustly as one consequence of two governments’ mutually belligerent policies.  Five and a half decades of history show us that such belligerence inhibits better judgment; two wrongs never made a right.

I truly hope that we can now get beyond those mutually belligerent policies.  I was very happy to hear what the President had to say today – it was particularly cool to be sitting next to the Secretary of State as he was hearing about his job description for the next couple of months.  In all seriousness, this is a game changer which I support.  In the meantime, I ask that you respect my wishes for complete and total privacy.  Claro?

A judicious lesson that I have learned from this experience is that freedom is not free.  And, as personified by Scott and our entire team, we must never forget the two pillars of Moses’ covenant, freedom, and responsibility.  I am incredibly blessed – finally – to have the freedom to resume a positive and constructive life.

But for now I will close with a quote from a Nelson DeMille character, “it’s good to be home”.  Thank you.  I wish all of you a happy holiday season.”

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American, Israeli Jewry Challenge Chief Rabbinate

‍‍2014-12-11 10:35:55 - יז טבת תשעד mjankovitz
Rabbi David  Ellenson

Rabbi David

A growing number of American Jews are challenging Israel’s chief rabbinate on issues of pluralistic religious freedom.

With the Orthodox rabbinate’s strict rules governing matters of marriage, divorce, burials and conversions, American Jewish leaders, along with Israeli partners, are working to spur world Jewry to demand change, citing national security concerns in Israel, religious rights of Israelis and the need to spur the emotional investment of world Jewry, especially younger generations, in the Jewish state.

“Because the chief rabbinate is so alienating to so many Israelis and so many Jews, it creates mass religious indifference,” said Steven Bayne, national director of contemporary Jewish life at the American Jewish Committee. “It’s regarded as ‘this is something that has nothing to say to us’. It alienates Jews from Judaism.”

To raise awareness and lobby Israeli politicians on this issue, the AJC formed the Jewish Religious Equality Coalition (J-REC) with leaders of the Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist movements and several liberal Orthodox groups.

“There needs to be recognized alternatives to the chief rabbinate’s monopoly,” Bayne said.

Although Israel recognizes marriages performed outside of the Jewish state for the purposes of government benefits, the rabbinate does not recognize marriages between Jews and non-Jews. Such recognition is necessary for a host of family law cases, such as adoption, divorce, custody and ability to marry in the future for oneself or his or her children.

In addition, the rabbinate does not recognize marriages performed in Israel outside of its auspices. The conversion process, which is also monitored by the rabbinate, is similarly strict and tightly controlled; the rabbinate also has authority over who can be buried in a Jewish cemetery.

“A wedding done by an Elvis impersonator in Las Vegas is recognized by Israel, but a wedding done by a Reform rabbi [in Israel] is not,” said Rabbi Levi Weiman-Kelman of Kehilat Kol HaNeshama, a Reform congregation in Jerusalem of about 300 families.

And he’s not kidding about Elvis. About 20 years ago, he married a couple in a traditional Reform ceremony, and the couple flew to Vegas to get a state-recognized marriage, where their ceremony was performed by an Elvis impersonator. Both ceremonies were filmed and televised, earning the rabbi the nickname “Elvis.”

Some couples fly to nearby Cypress or other foreign countries where they have family. Many will get foreign ceremonies and come back for a wedding ceremony at the synagogue, Weiman-Kelman said.

The rabbi, couples he has married and other rabbis and couples who perform and partake in marriages outside of the rabbinate face the threat of a two-year prison term under a law passed last year that was upheld last month. But Weiman-Kelman doesn’t expect any couples or rabbis to face legal action under the law, and not one couple scheduled for a future marriage has contacted him with concern about being prosecuted.

“They’ll never take me alive,” he joked. “I’ve done, I don’t know, hundreds of weddings over the past 30 years.”

He said the timing of the law being upheld might have to do with Israel’s upcoming election season and politicians hoping for support from the haredi Orthodox parties. But American leaders, such as Hebrew Union College chancellor Rabbi David Ellenson, who is vice chair of J-REC, say it sends a bad message to the Jewish Diaspora, serving to “distance and alienate” Jews from Israel.

Bayne said he draws some encouragement from the harsh stances, seeing it as a sign that the chief rabbinate may realize “the tides are turning against them,” he said.

While Weiman-Kelman has had no trouble performing weddings himself, other issues arise, such as in cases when Orthodox rabbis won’t provide kashrut certificates to social halls that allow non-Orthodox wedding celebrations.

From experiences he’s observed, the chief rabbinate isn’t always consistent on divorces in non-sanctioned weddings either.

“Many Israelis, even though most Israelis do not consider themselves Orthodox, they submit to the rabbinate because they want to avoid complications,” he said.

Although Weiman-Kelman is continuing to perform marriages, American Jewish leaders are worried not only about the message it sends, but what the future could hold.

“Private exercise of religion is severely infringed upon,” said Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, executive vice president of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly. “Israel could become the only country that has a sizable Jewish population where people don’t have freedom of religion.”

Schonfeld wants to see “administrative equality” in Israel whereby all strains of Judaism receive equal funding.

While J-REC is not advocating for specific solutions, the goal is toestablish a broad coalition to engage American Jewry and lobby the Israeli government to realize it can’t afford to lose the support of American leaders irked by the rabbinate.

“The Israeli government will simply say, ‘Well, this is one organization and this is just Reform or it’s just Conservative,’ so you really need as large as possible a coalition across as much of the religious spectrum as you can get as well as the secular spectrum,” said Dov Zakheim, a modern Orthodox Jew who chairs the coalition and was U.S. undersecretary of defense under George W. Bush. “Israel cannot afford to lose the support of the American Jewish community.”

Coalition officials, who met late last month, see this as a multiyear effort that will require feet on the ground in Israel working toward the same goals.

“I think eventually we would like to get to the part where there could be civil marriage in Israel, rights given to non-Orthodox, non-denominational rabbis, to have their marriages recognized, but I can’t say that’s the aim of the coalition,” Ellenson said.

While there was not a representative from the Jewish Federations of North America at November’s J-REC meeting, the organization did launch iRep (the Israel Religious Expression Platform) as a way for federations so support religious pluralism and freedom in Israel.

While there are Orthodox members of J-REC, some organizations, such as the Rabbinical Council of America, are choosing not to participate.

RCA executive vice president Rabbi Mark Dratch said the coalition challenges basic halachic standards, such as matrilineal descent to determine a person’s Jewish identity.

“I think experience has shown the importance of the work the chief rabbinate is doing, but it’s also showing us that improvements need to be made,” Dratch said. “That being said, the RCA is not participating in this new coalition to challenge the rabbinate.”

For Zakheim, the bigger picture is about much more than the rabbinate; it’s about keeping young Jews engaged in and supportive of Israel. With both Israel’s and the United States’ interests tied closely together, ensuring that Americans are advocates for Israel is crucial, he said. This includes making sure young Jews in Israel and America feel valued as members of the Jewish people.

“If their friends go on aliyah and are told, ‘You’re not really Jewish,’ that’s going to filter back home,” Zakheim said. “It’s not so much a matter of bringing them in as it is keeping them from falling out.”

J-REC now has about 14 different organizations and 30 individual members. Zakheim said the group will likely meet every four months, with the next meeting tentatively scheduled in March after Israel’s March 17 elections.

“Whatever that government looks like, we’re not going to quit,” he said. “This is something that’s just too important to drop. We’re going to keep pushing, pushing and pushing.”

Rabbi David 
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